Saturday, March 29, 2008

Censorship Instead of Prison Is What Passes for Progress in Cuba

Where is Cuba moving under Little Brother?

In an easterly direction. Decisions made by the Cuban government in the past few days suggest there is truth to the speculation that Raul Castro is simpatico toward China’s brand of Market-Leninism.

Slowly, quietly (don’t want to wake up Big Brother), the Cuban government has lifted some of the more ridiculous economic restrictions beloved by Fidel. At the same time, it continues to crack down on free expression, although in a more subtle way than when Fidel ran things.

New policies regarding technology encapsulate what’s going on.

Earlier this month, the regime authorized the sale of electronic equipment like small kitchen appliances and computers.

Yes, it is true: Up until the decree, it was illegal to just go out and buy a toaster. If that old Sunbeam in your family since 1956 broke down, you ate cold Cuban bread until assigned a replacement toaster. Ah, the march of freedom.

Of course, a toaster is just a toaster. A computer, though, is a dangerous thing. Like Information Minister Ramiro Valdes famously put it last year, the Internet is “the wild colt of new technologies that has to be tamed.”

Not to worry about runaway horses. “The echo of the drumbeat announcing the imminent sale of computers, DVD players and other electro-domestic appliances has reached my ears,” writes Yoani Sanchez of Generacion Y, the most popular dissident blog written from inside Cuba. “Like all the latest rumors, it comes from foreign countries. In the stores around my neighborhood nobody knows about this flood of technology.”

And no wonder. The change in policy was leaked to Reuters and the Mexican news agency Notimex, but has yet to be mentioned in Cuba’s state-run media. Besides, few Cubans can afford to buy a computer -- which the stores they are permitted to shop in don’t have on the shelves anyway.

So, no computers to buy and no money to buy computers. But if your cousin in Miami sends you a few bucks and you are lucky enough to track down an old Pentium, go for it!

Oh, well. Being able to buy a computer without worrying about legalities is progress of a sort. It’s the “Market” part of Market-Leninism.

The “Leninism” part comes in what you can do with it.

A 2006 report by Reporters Without Borders called Cuba “one of the world’s most backward countries as regards Internet usage,” with “less than 2 percent of the population online.”

Cuba’s government, says the report, “has more or less banned private Internet connections. To visit Web sites or check their e-mail, Cubans have to use public access points such as Internet cafes, universities and ‘youth computing centers’ where it is easier to monitor their activity.

Internet policy has not changed since the report was issued, two months after the older Castro got sick and temporarily gave up power. Still, those scary wild, wild horses are dragging tech-savvy Cubans away from the grasp of the Interior Ministry. People who manage to get online download files to flash drives, which then circulate among friends and friends of friends. Yoani Sanchez updates her blog by sneaking into hotel cyber cafes, verboten to Cubans, pretending she is a tourist. You can read her in Spanish at; an English-language version,, is very nicely translated but a couple of postings behind.

Of course, being that so few Cubans have Internet access, the majority of visitors to her blog come from outside Cuba. But it seems even her handful of fans inside the island are a perceived threat. Her latest postings charge government censors are blocking her site from users in Cuba, or making their access excruciatingly slow.

In the “Black Spring” of five years ago, 75 independent writers and librarians were imprisoned for terms of more than 20 years. Some were found guilty of having “published counter-revolutionary writings on an Internet Web page.”

It’s a threat that hangs over Yoani Sanchez and other brave Cuban bloggers. Will creeping Sinoization mean they get blocked instead of thrown in jail?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Brilliant Speech Will Not End Debate About Pastor

Barack Obama was two-for-three Tuesday in Philadelphia: He hit two home runs, then struck out.

What he said about race relations in general was practically unprecedented in American public life, free of the ideological baggage and ethnic one-upmanship that characterizes race talk in the United States.

Sounding like an old-fashioned Reaganesque patriot, standing before a backdrop of American flags in a building across from Independence Hall, he lauded the Founding Fathers who “launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy.” Yet he minced no words in saying the Constitution they wrote “was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.”

He did not shy away, either, from saying that black anger about discrimination “keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition.” Nor was he afraid to sound like a conservative when he insisted “the African-American community” must take responsibility for our own lives -- by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children ... they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”

He even seemed to justify the “resentment” some whites feel “when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced.”

Which did not mean he let white people off the hook: “In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination -- and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past -- are real and must be addressed.”

It was a performance full of nuance and paradox, an acknowledgement of the nuance and paradox inherent in a history of American race relations that cannot be understood without the shades of gray that accompany black and white.

Obama also was successful in explaining what was so deeply objectionable about Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s 9/11 conspiracy theories, about his apparent belief that a murderous U.S. government sells drugs to poor blacks, about his call for God to “damn America.”

“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country -- a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.”

Wright’s comments, Obama said, were “wrong and divisive.” A few days ago, after the scandal broke, he used the phrases “categorically denounce” and “reject outright.”

Strong stuff. Yet in that Philadelphia speech Obama also said of the now-retired pastor: “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

Those arguments are so weak as to be unworthy of the nuanced and obviously paradox-capable mind Barack Obama clearly owns.

Breaking ties with Wright (if that is what “disown” means) may well be the equivalent of breaking ties with radical elements in the black community, but it is certainly not the same as breaking ties with the black community as a whole, which ought not be defined by the extremist few.

And as to his grandmother -- Obama actively sought out, then knowingly accepted Jeremiah Wright as a powerful presence in his life for 20 years. The grandmother came with the family.

One reason Obama won’t “disown” Wright is that it can’t be done, at least not in a way that allows Obama to keep credibility. If he did not “disown” the pastor for 20 years, what reason other than political expediency could there possibly be for doing it now?

Two out of three is not bad. But the game is not over. And up to bat next is Hillary Clinton.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Shame of Torture

Back in 1996, Bob Dole kept asking, “Where’s the outrage?”

Today, does anybody remember what there was to be outraged about?

A few voices are crying “outrage” once again. The difference is, this time it’s for real. But who is paying attention?

Maybe we are too busy watching “American Idol.” And distracted by economic woes. And entranced by Hillary-Obama. And worn down by the war. And -- more telling -- fearful of another terrorist attack.

The American president has told the world that the United States will torture people.

That is what it comes down to. Put aside euphemisms. It’s not that the world’s most powerful country reserves the option to use “specialized interrogation procedures” or “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

What it is, is that our great democracy has sunk to tormenting people in its custody. Torture used to be the province of nasty dictators who were enemies of the United States, often because the United States had the moral authority to demand they stop.

Now, dictators can point a finger right back. And it won’t be mere propaganda.

That should be enough to send a wave of revulsion sweeping across the entire country. And I mean the entire country, not just among Democrats looking to score partisan points, and not just among earnest liberals who believe even terrorists have human rights

Conservatives too, should be something near apoplectic. Under George W. Bush, the United States has become less powerful, less able to have its way, than at any time since Jimmy Carter’s administration. And that’s even though in the months that followed the 9/11 attacks, global sympathy put the United States at the height of its influence in world affairs. The Chinese, the Russians, the Saudis -- they did not protest taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was a commanding position, unforgivably frittered away by unwise use of American power

Which explains why conservatives cannot bring themselves to see the serious damage done in the past seven years. Under Carter, the United States lost power through weakening of the military and indecisiveness in the civilian leadership -- failures traditionally associated with the left and therefore easy for the foreign-policy right to recognize and criticize.

In contrast, the failures of the Bush administration are the product of misapplied right-wing philosophies. So conservatives have a hard time seeing these policies as failures.

Invade Iraq with little international support and with disregard for understanding the local culture? We can do that -- we have a great military.

Torture people to get them to talk? We can do that -- we are Americans who hold the moral high ground.

The follies committed in Iraq are so self-evident, even conservatives understand the gravity (the “surge” is but an admission of the injudiciousness that preceded it). But the folly of torture has yet to get universal condemnation from the right, except for mavericks like John McCain

Quoting international nongovernmental organizations criticizing U.S. policy is not the best way to win conservative hearts and minds. But Human Rights Watch says there is an “absolute, unequivocal prohibition against torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of any person, including terrorist suspects. The right to be free from such mistreatment is one of the most fundamental and unequivocal human rights.”

“Absolute.” “Unequivocal.” Once upon a time, American officials agreed absolutely, unequivocally. They no longer do.

Torture is not even a practical necessity. Expert interrogators from the FBI and the military believe it doesn’t work, because people will lie to stop the pain. The Army’s field manual recommends 19 techniques that range from sophisticated deceptions to appropriately aggressive good cop/bad cop. So nobody is “coddling terrorists.” And as to the “ticking time bomb,” experts say it’s a fantasy

“I’d be hard-pressed to find a situation where anybody can tell me that they’ve ever encountered a ticking bomb scenario,” former FBI interrogator Jack Cloonan, who questioned al-Qaida suspects, told “Foreign Policy” magazine. “When it happens on ‘24’... it makes us all believe it’s real. It’s not. Throw that stuff out. It doesn’t happen."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Will the Moderate Latin Left Stop Chávez’s March to War?

The stupidest war in the world right now is the one being waged against the Colombian state by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

You look at other conflicts and you can sort of understand: Country X thinks country Z stole its land and wants to get it back; or tyrant A can be ousted only by force; or group B wants to behead everyone who doesn’t worship god C.

You don’t have to agree with any side in those wars -- you can believe, for instance, that group B consists of medieval lunatic murderers. Still, you know why they are fighting.

Such is not the case in Colombia’s four-decades-old conflict. The country has been a democracy all those years, with a vigorously free press and competitive elections that have resulted in left-leaning presidents some years, right-leaning presidents other years (as is the case now).

But FARC takes part in no elections, unlike the former guerrilla group known as M-19, which had a far-left agenda similar to FARC’s but disarmed and entered the Colombian political process in the late 1980s. Instead, FARC devotes itself to kidnapping people, selling cocaine and killing innocent civilians in attacks on small country towns. It was declared a terrorist group by the European Union and the governments of Colombia and the United States.

The conflict remained ostensibly local until last week, when the Colombian armed forces struck a FARC base inside Ecuadorean territory and killed Raul Reyes, one of the top two or three FARC commanders. According to Colombia’s national police chief Gen. Oscar Naranjo, documents seized at the camp say that FARC operatives are in the market for uranium, and that Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez sent the group some $300 million.

Naturally, Ecuador protested Colombia’s violation of its territory. Just as understandably, Colombia protested Ecuador turning a blind eye to terrorists in Ecuadorean territory. Chavez and his Ecuadorean ally Rafael Correa withdrew their ambassadors in Bogota and closed Colombian embassies in their capitals.

Then sabers got rattled. Chavez ordered troops and tanks (as many as 200) to the border, and Ecuador sent troops, too. South America is at the brink of a war the likes of which it has never seen.

There have been wars there before, bloody ones too. In the War of the Triple Alliance, fought from 1864 to 1870, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay defeated Paraguay and killed nearly its entire male population of fighting age. About a decade later Chile fought Bolivia and took land Bolivia still claims. As recently as 1995 Peru and Ecuador had a brief shoot’em-up with about 100 total killed over a disputed border.

But never has there been a war between nations that was a direct result of competing global political ideologies. The current crisis has the potential to start the first one. Even if FARC is nothing more than a very big, well-armed gang of drug-dealing thugs posing as Marxist-Leninist ideologues, Chavez’s rantings about Colombian President Alvaro Uribe being a lackey of the United States guarantees this will not be your average South American territorial war.

Which is why Chavez’s yawners about imperialistas Yanquis now take an ominous tone. Is he crazy enough to go to war with Colombia?

It doesn’t look as if Colombia is going to give him an excuse. Uribe has refrained from massing his own troops on the borders, an attempt to de-escalate the crisis. Besides, since Colombia’s extraterritorial excursion was on Ecuadorean soil, not Venezuelan, what is Chavez doing in the middle of this?

Venezuelan Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel laid it out at a Caracas press conference this week: “It is not against the people of Colombia, but rather the expansionist designs of the empire,” he said, according to The New York Times.

It’s a Chavez fantasy: defeat the United States by defeating Colombia.

It is up to the sane left in Latin America -- Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Michelle Bachelet in Chile -- to tell Chavez that the region will not accept his attempt to turn South America’s stupidest war into its most dangerous. It will have to say, in the king of Spain’s famous phrase, “Why don’t you shut up.”